Saturday, January 14, 2023

Erring Wives and Jealous Husbands.

One afternoon in the Autumn of 1855, two young men were drinking coffee at Vinton’s, a Boston confectionary saloon. Both were bright and respectable, with promising futures. William Sumner, age 19, was a cousin of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and had recently completed a course of mercantile studies, preparing to enter his brother’s ship chandlery business. His friend, Josiah Porter, was a Harvard graduate and a lieutenant in the City Guards.

A pair of attractive young ladies sat down at the table next to them. Nelly Dalton and Fanny Coburn were sisters, the daughters of John Gove, who owned a clothing store in Boston. Fanny recognized Mr. Porter and reminded him they had been introduced at a ball for the City Guards the previous February. The four struck up a conversation, and although both ladies were married, they became quite flirtatious. Before they left, they told the men that they often came to Vinton’s and hoped they would see them there again.

When they met again, all four sat at the table, and the flirting continued. Nelly Dalton secretly passed a note under the table to William Sumner. He later read the message  to Porter. The note was very flattering; she expressed a strong liking for Sumner. He answered her in a letter, and this began a regular correspondence. They sent each other amorous letters, including some romantic poetry Sumner sent her. Fanny Coburn tried the same thing with Josiah Porter, but he did not respond to her letters.

That November, Nelly began to worry about getting caught and asked Sumner to return her letters. He did so, but she did not destroy the letters he sent to her. Nelly’s husband, Benjamin Dalton, found them and confronted her. Nelly tried to shift the blame to Josiah Parker, but that only enflamed Fanny’s husband, Edward Coburn.

The Dalton and Coburn compelled their wives to write to Sumner and Porter, inviting them to Coburn’s house on Shawmut Avenue. Porter received the letter on November 17; the message seemed urgent, so he hurried to the house. As soon as he arrived, Dalton and Coburn seized him and began whipping him with cowhides. Porter freed himself and ran from the house before sustaining any serious injury.

William Sumner had not responded to the letter, so the men went looking for him. They found him in a saloon on West Street. Sumner had never met Dalton or Coburn, so he did not know who they were. They told him that Mrs. Dalton was very anxious to see him, and they would drive them there in a carriage. Sumner declined, saying he had to catch a train to his home in Milton. The men said they would take him home. The men persisted, and Sumner reluctantly agreed to go with them.

They entered the house and went to the parlor, where he found the two sisters. The men revealed themselves as their husbands. An argument ensued, and Dalton asked Sumner if he had ever taken any improper liberties with his wife or had placed his hand upon her bosom. Sumner denied doing anything of the kind. 

Dalton said his wife had made such a charge, to which she replied, “I placed his hand upon my bosom; he did not. He never took any improper familiarities with me.”

This made Dalton even more furious. He and Coburn dragged Sumner to the basement, where they began pounding him with their fists. They beat him until they were satisfied and kicked him out the back door. 

Josiah Porter filed charges against Dalton and Coburn, and they were free on bail, awaiting trial. Sumner did not go to the police and wanted to keep quiet about the beating. But Sumner was still in pain from the attack, and his health was deteriorating. On December 11, Sumner died. Dalton and Coburn were re-arrested, this time for murder.

Benjamin Dalton and Edward Coburn were charged with manslaughter; their trial began on January 24, 1856. Sumner’s doctor testified that the cause of his death was inflammation of the throat and air vessels caused by his external injuries and aggravated by exposure to the cold. The defense argued that it could not be proven that the beating caused the inflammation. Sumner would have died anyway.

They also argued that the beating was not planned. The women sent for Sumner and Porter on their own initiative. The defendants planned to confront their wives and demand an explanation of their conduct, then let the men go. But when Sumner arrived, they saw he was wearing a ring that Dalton had given his wife at their wedding. This so enraged Dalton that he began beating Sumner.

The jury was deadlocked for five hours, with half for conviction for manslaughter and half for assault and battery. The jury finally agreed on the lesser charge. Coburn was sentenced to ten months in the jail and a fine of $250; Dalton was sentenced to five months in jail and a fine of $200. The discrepancy was probably because Coburn was much older than Dalton and believed to be the instigator.

The defendants were pleased with the verdict. As their attorney, R.H. Dana, expressed it, his clients were “delivered from blood-guiltiness.”

“Boston in 1855,” The Daily Free Press, December 15, 1855.
“Committal of Coburn and Dalton on Charge of Murder,” New York Daily Herald, December 14, 1855.
Complete Report of the Trial of Edward O. Coburn and Benjamin F. Dalton (Boston: Federhen, 1856.

“Errings Wives and Jealous Husbands,” Evening Star, September 28, 1855.
“Fatal Rsult of the Shawmut Avenue Cowhiding Affair,” Boston Evening Transcript, December 11, 1855.
“The Merry Wives of Boston,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 12, 1855.
“Sentence of Coburn and DAlton,” Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, March 8, 1856.
“The Shawmut Avenue Outrage,” Kennebec Journal, December 21, 1855.
“The Sumner Case in Boston,” New York Daily Herald, December 21, 1855.
“The Sumner Tragedy,” New England Farmer, December 22, 1855.


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